The following is a selection from my gay-themed Historical novel “BLOOD ON COTTON” which I am currently writing…
BLOOD ON COTTON
Sitting here on the balcony on this warm autumn afternoon, I feel it is no small miracle.
This has been my favourite place to read and take tea for most of my life. I put down my latest book, another of the many in our library that were printed over a hundred years ago, one of the many I want to enjoy before I go. I pour more tea, raise the cup, sip the comforting black brew and hold it before me in both hands as I look out through the grand old trees to the fields beyond. The rising steam makes the distant view and lengthening shadows seem to dance and shimmer as if time was losing its tenacious grip on the endless forward procession of my days. As I smell the familiar aroma of the blackcurrant flavoured Ceylon tea, I am suddenly and magically transported. No longer here but there, not now but then…
Mammy Jane enters the library from the main hall. The sound of our giggles echoing around the grand room warms her heart. She treasures the sound of children playing happily and believes the innocence of youth must be protected, as long as possible, from the harsh realities of the adult world.
“Massa James” she calls “Will I be bringin’ your teas and cakes now?”
Henry looks down over the railing from the mezzanine level of the library, “I’m famished.”
“Yes, Mammy, we’ll take it on the balcony as usual,” I inform her as I make my way up the spiral iron staircase to join my younger brother.
“Thank you, Massa James, I be bringin’ it to you directly,” she says, but I stop to correct her.
“Remember what I taught you?”
She repeats, “I – will – bring it to you directly,” as she heads to the kitchen.
I smile and turn my attention to my younger brother as I reach the top of the stairs, “Henry, have you chosen a new book yet?”
“There are so many to choose from, do you think father has read them all?
“I suspect it would take more than one lifetime to read all of these books,” I suggest to him,
“Father doesn’t appreciate books like we do; to him, they are just another way to show his wealth and success. Well, that’s what mother told me anyway.”
“When will they be back?” Henry asked.
“Another two days I believe, at least we can enjoy being the men of the house for a while longer,” I said pretentiously, which made him burst out with laughter and an entertaining display of rather pompous gestures.
“Make your selection, little brother, and join me out here,” I instructed him as I made my grand exit through the French doors onto the balcony.
A few minutes later he sat down on the cane chair near me as Mammy arrived with our tea and cakes. She placed the tray on the small table between us and poured for us. Henry always liked to take his with milk but I prefer mine black.
“I hope you haven’t eaten any of our cakes on the way up here, Mammy?” said Henry, “Father will have you horsewhipped when he returns.”
“Oh, no Massa, no, I would never does that, no, not’s me, oh Lordy, no!”
“Stop it, boy, don’t tease her like that!” I snapped at him.
“Don’t call me “boy”, I’m no Nigger” he cast back at me.
“Ignore him, Mammy, he’s just being evil, we both know you would never do such a thing”
“Oh, thanks you, Massa James,” exclaimed Mammy as she bowed and headed back downstairs.
“What book are you reading?” asked Henry.
“It’s called Innocents Abroad by a new writer, Mark Twain.”
“What’s it about?”
“I have to read it before I can tell you that so read yours and stop distracting me. Or at least put one of those cakes in your mouth so I can read in peace.”
With an amusingly dirty look, he did just that.
After some tea and a cake, I looked out to the cotton fields in the distance where the Negro workers were busy with the planting. I took a deep breath of the sweet spring air, returned to my book, and felt that all was right with the world.
* * *
Down in the fields, the spring sun was starting to get a sting to it. It was early afternoon, the supervisor, Riley, was nowhere to be seen and only a few of the adult Negros were still working on planting the last of the cotton seeds for this first field. They were singing among themselves as they worked. Their voices resonated with deep emotion born from struggle, sorrow, pain and hope as if they were expressing what they held in the depths of their souls. A depth of emotion that I never understood at that time but often wondered what was the source of it. It was not religion, their words far more profound than the dull hymns we sang in church. It was not from poverty, their life was not without its basic comforts of shelter, food, companionship and a hard day’s work. It also seemed that their singing and the expressing of the deep emotion provided them with a healing release. If only I was permitted to express myself so freely. Father always demanded we behave so properly, so “stiff upper lip” and so grown up.
* * *
Our reading was suddenly interrupted by the sound of feet running up the main staircase. Our two dogs, Shakespeare and Avon, burst onto the balcony followed closely behind by our younger sister, Mary.
“Hello, you two, what are you up to?” asked Mary, cheerfully.
“What have YOU been up to is more the question,” I responded.
“I was out for a walk with the hounds and spent a while by the river watching the Nigger children playing and swimming,” she answered, cautiously, “I didn’t get too close to the water, I promise, I was very careful.”
“You know that father would be furious if he found out. He told you to never go down there unsupervised. He would blame me if something had happened to you,” I scolded her.
“Your lemonade, Miss” announced Mammy as she appeared through the door.
“I was fine, James,” protested Mary.
“I told my Jacob to watch over her, Master James,” explained Mammy Jane.
“He was there with me all the time,” Mary added.
“Thank you, Mammy, that is appreciated,” I confirmed.
“Father would not think so,” interjected Henry.
“Well, father is not here, is he?” I snapped as I stood and dropped my book onto my chair, “I’m going for a walk. Are you two coming?” I asked the dogs, but Shakespeare just whimpered as he looked longingly at the uneaten cakes still on the plate.
“That was a no,” advised Mary. So I left them to it and headed down the stairs. I heard Mammy call after me, “Wears your hat, Massa James,” which I collected from the hallway then headed through the front door and out into the sunshine.
* * *
I walked alone with my thoughts as the afternoon shadows grew longer. My head was always so full of ideas, questions, doubts and dreams. After some time I realized I was near the river. As I approached I could see someone through the low trees. It was Jacob, he was there alone now. He had been swimming and was just emerging from the water. The sun was glistening off his wet, dark skin and it highlighted the muscles in his shoulders, arms and chest. I knew he was my age but I was struck by how he was much more manly looking than me. I envied him in that way.
He sat down on the riverbank and I could clearly see the strength of his back muscles under his black skin. I wanted to speak to him, I was about to ask, “Do you come here often?” which would surely make him laugh, as we both knew full well that he loved coming here. In fact, we had known each other all our lives, but I suddenly, strangely, felt self-conscious and uncomfortable. I decided not to disturb him and quietly made my way back to the house. It would be time for dinner soon, I reasoned.
* * *
The next day started out like a typical Sunday. Up early, washed and dressed in our best clothes then the long buggy ride to the local church that served the many plantations and farms in our Parish.
With mother and father away, Mammy Jane and her man, Moses, were responsible for making sure we attended and stayed on our best behaviour. It would never do for the children of Patrick Edward Andrews-O’Malley to be seen disgracing him in public!
The ride to church took over an hour and would normally be a very boring and sombre journey since we were expected to behave piously on the Lord’s Day. Except on days like this when we were without our parents and Mammy, Moses & Jacob all rode in the carriage with us.
There were two carriages of Negros following behind us as they were also expected to attend church at least once every four weeks. Father said the plantation couldn’t be left unattended, not even for the Lord’s Day, but insisted that they all needed to get a share of Christian education to temper their wild ways, so they took it in turns. At least this trip we were all enjoying a moving sing-along together and their voices were a gift that I believed God should never be denied hearing.
The silliest thing was how they all looked. They were all dressed up in bright colours like my sister’s dolls, but with black faces. They reminded me of those dancing monkeys that would perform with the travelling amusement shows, so uncomfortable and unnatural, which I came to learn was exactly how they felt.
When we arrived at the church, Dr Lawson, his wife, his daughters and his sister were waiting for us. They lived on a farm less than an hour from us. They were family as Dr Lawson had married my mother’s sister, Elizabeth and they would naturally keep an eye on things when mother and father were away. We sat with them because the Negros were never allowed inside the church; they would gather outside by the windows and hear the sermon from there. Usually, a message about how evil and sinful we all were and only Jesus could wash that away.
After church, we travelled back to the Lawson farm for a wonderful lunch. The Negros went back to our plantation but Mammy, Moses and Jacob came with us as we followed the Lawsons home. Miss Anne, Dr Lawson’s sister, was also our school teacher so along the way she would call out questions for us to answer, mostly spelling and sums which we would fight to see who could get the right answer first. I sometimes let the others win.
By the time we arrived back at the plantation both Henry and Mary were struggling to keep their eyes open, the pleasant afternoon air and the results of a big lunch were taking their toll.
Mammy took Mary up to her room to settle her in for an afternoon nap and Henry said he was headed up to his room for the same purpose. I was not tired so I retreated to the library to entertain myself with some further cataloguing of the hundreds of books we kept there. Mother had an idea of the content of many of the volumes in our bookcases but was pleased that I was making myself a project of creating a full catalogue. As usual, I quickly lost track of time.
* * *
An hour and a half had passed, though it seemed only a few minutes when I was brought back to reality by the sound of the dogs barking and Jacob shouting from the front of the house.
I ran to see what was wrong. I found Jacob at the foot of the stairs holding an unconscious Henry in his arms and Mammy in a fit of panic over them.
“Oh lordy, Masser Henry,” she cried, “Whats has happened?”
“I draggs’d him out the river, he is a breathin’ but not awakes,” replied Jacob, breathlessly.
Instinctively I took charge. “Mammy, can you find Moses and get him to fetch Dr Lawson, tell him to take the fastest horse, and tell Dr Lawson that Henry has had an accident,” I instructed her as many of the other Negros were approaching to see what all the fuss was about.
“That be your father’s horse, Masser, he not be pleased with my Moses for that.”
“Just do as I say, Mammy, I will answer to father. Now hurry, fast as you can,” then turning to Jacob, “Help me get him to his room, Jacob.”
As we carried Henry into the house, Jacob told me what had happened…
He was walking near the river when he suddenly heard the dogs start barking. It was an unusual and distressed barking that told him something was wrong. He ran to the source of the sound. He could see the dogs standing by the edge of the water and just beyond them he saw Henry floating, face up, in the water. He called to Henry but there was no response, he was floating lifelessly away from the river bank. Jacob noticed marks in the mud at the water’s edge that he realised must have been where Henry slipped and fallen in. There was also a rock there with what looked like a little blood on it so he assumed that Henry must have hit his head when he slipped. Jacob ran into the river, pulled Henry out onto the river bank and saw blood coming from the back of his head, confirming his thoughts. Jacob used his shirt to wrap around Henry’s head to slow the bleeding, picked him up, and ran as fast as he could back to the house with Henry over his shoulder.
We were halfway up the stairs now and there was a scream from above us. The noise had woken Mary; she was at the top of the stairs and saw us carrying her brother.
“Henry! Henry!” she screamed, “Is he dead?”
“No, Mary, just unconscious,” I reassured her, “Open his door for us and get a clean cloth to put under his head, quickly.”
She had opened the door by the time we reached the room and was returning with a cloth from the upstairs washroom. We laid Henry on his bed, put the cloth under his head, removed Jacob’s shirt which revealed dried blood at the back of Henry’s head. I sent Mary to find Mammy and fetch water and bandages to clean up his head wound.
“Thank god you were there, Jacob, he may have drowned otherwise, I … I …” I started to feel the world dissolving around me and my knees give way. Jacob rushed over, grabbed me firmly in his arms and lowered me into the nearby chair. He brought me some water from the bedside table which I sipped and as I recovered I noticed the deep concern in his eyes. I took hold of his hand and assured him “Thank you, I’m fine. I cannot thank you enough for saving my foolish brother.”
I told him that he should go outside and get a drink himself after his long run back from the river. As he left the room Mammy and Mary arrived to fuss over us both.
* * *
Around eleven that morning, mother and father returned. Miss Anne greeted them. She had been walking in the garden with Riley who had been in the nearest town, apparently on business, and had also returned earlier that morning.
“Anne,” called mother as their carriage came to a stop at the front of our home, “What brings you here? Shouldn’t the children be with you in the schoolroom?”
“Welcome back, Ruth,” she began to explain, “Now please, stay calm, there has been an accident.”
“What?” asked father, “What happened? Can’t we ever go away without something going wrong?”
“Let her explain, Patrick!” interrupted mother.
“Where were you, Riley?” snapped father, “You are in charge of the slaves, why weren’t you supervising them?”
“It’s nothing to do with the Negros, Patrick, and nothing to do with Riley either,” Miss Anne corrected him, as only she could.
“No, it’s about the children isn’t it?” reasoned mother.
“Yes, Ruth,” explained Miss Anne, “Henry had an accident yesterday afternoon but he is doing
fine now. He’s up in his room. We decided that I should stay here last night to comfort the children and John will be back this afternoon to review his condition.”
“Oh, my poor boy!” cried mother as Riley helped her from the carriage. Then Mary ran out from the house to greet them chattering away with excitement about how her brother had fallen in the river and Jacob had saved him.
“Riley, get these horses seen to,” barked father, as they headed inside, “What happened, Anne”.
I had overheard all this through the upstairs library window and headed for Henry’s room where he was reading, still in bed. Mother came rushing in first in tears and hugged Henry.
“Mother, I’m alright, just a sore head,” explained Henry. Then father, Miss Anne and Mary came in.
“James, how did this happen, it’s your responsibility to watch out for your brother and sister,” accused father, “Why was he at the river alone? Where were you?”
“Henry and Mary had come to their rooms for afternoon nap, I was in the library and had no idea that he had left the house without telling me,” I protested.
“You are always in that damn library or with your head stuck in a book,” he growled, “Get you head back into the real world.”
“Patrick, please, enough!” said mother, “Henry, is it true, you went there without telling anyone?”
“I’m so sorry, father. I wasn’t tired and just decided to go for a walk, the dogs were with me so I thought I would be safe. I didn’t mean to get hurt. I’m sorry,” apologised Henry in tears.
“So you slipped and fell in the river?” continued mother, “Henry, you could have drowned. We are so fortunate that Jacob was there to save you”
“Yes, without him being there it may have been a very different outcome,” confirmed Miss Anne.
“No, no,” protested Henry, “That’s not true, Jacob did it. He saw me standing by the edge of the river, he hit me with a rock and I fell in”.
“What?” I said angrily, “Why are you lying, Henry? Jacob saved you.”
“No, father, please believe me. Jacob hit me.”
Mary and mother looked shocked. Miss Anne was lost for words and father exploded with anger.
“How dare he? I knew that boy was trouble. Where is he? He’s gonna pay for this,” roared father as he stormed out of the room. The ladies were shouting after him to stop. I ran after him.
I tried to reason with him. “Father, Henry’s lying. Jacob didn’t hurt Henry, he saved him!”
“Did anyone see what happened?” he shouted at me, “No! So you want me to take the word of a
Nigger over that of my own son? What is wrong with you boy? You turning into some nigger lovin’ simpleton or something? I swear I’ll throw you out of this house!”
I stood in front of him, blocking his way. “Get out of my way!” he ordered.
“No, Jacob did not hurt Henry, you’re wrong father. Henry is lying!” I stood my ground.
Then he slapped me across the face so hard it knocked me to the floor. I heard Mary scream. As I lay there in shock I heard him shouting Jacob’s name as he headed out the back door…
©MICHAEL YOUNG 2017